SALKANTAY TREK: DAY 5 – THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
DAY 5: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN
We wake fresh after our first night’s sleep in a comfortable bed and access to a shower, even if the water wasn’t hot. I am so excited I feel sick. I have dreamt of this day for as long as I can remember and if I think about it too much I might burst into tears.
I tell Ivy where we are going and she repeats it – “Machu Picchu.” She is unaware of the weight of her words.
We head downstairs to the hotel lobby and collect our packed breakfast from the tour, the last meal before they departed. We leave www.machupicchureservations.com here in Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to the ruins. We wait outside to meet our new guide.
We’ve decided to hike to the top and I watch hundreds of people standing in line to catch the bus, the most common way to get to the ruins. The street is framed with people excitedly waiting in the cold, breakfast in hand to secure their spots. I sip my coffee and watch the sea of bodies sway down the street.
Entry to Machu Picchu is split into time categories to limit the amount of people visiting at one time. We have the second entry at noon so we arranged to meet our guide at 10am. He doesn’t show. We wait anxiously not wanting to lose any time. I call our travel agent in Cusco who constantly assures me the guide is coming. I keep calling, they keep providing different meeting points. Eventually they tell us the guide will wait for us at the bottom of Machu Picchu, before we start the hike. I am doubtful but we decide we would rather go it alone than continue to wait.
There is no guide when we show our entry tickets and cross the bridge to the start of the hike and we’re told he is now waiting at the top.
Ivy wants to hike herself, so we climb slowly. Very slowly. The rock steps are steep and she uses her whole body to climb up each step, lifting one leg and then pulling herself up with the side of the mountain.
The hike is a rock staircase that reaches for the heavens. The steps wind around the mountain, grow only steeper and higher into the sky, framed tightly by mountain sides and clouds. We don’t see many people climbing up, mainly those climbing down from the morning adventures.
We pass an older couple who had been on the Salkantay Trek with us. They left in the early hours of the morning for the day’s first entry. They greet us with wide smiles and tell us it’s worth every step. We climb past them and before we get much higher, the lady stops me.
She says my name the way an authority figure would. Stern. Serious.
I turn around to meet her eyes on the stairs below me, my stomach flipping and wondering what she is going to say. For some reason, something in her voice makes me feel like i’m in trouble and the anxiety dancing in my stomach prepares for a parenting lecture.
“You are a wonderful mother.”
I realize I was holding my breath and I suddenly exhale.
“Both of you are incredible parents. It was a pleasure to share this experience with you and watch you with your daughter on such a difficult tour. Thank you for sharing it with us.”
I struggle to find my voice and my eyes fill with tears. I knew I would cry today.
“Thank you,” I tell her. “Thank you so much.”
We continue climbing with Ivy in the backpack, concerned we will lose even more of our allocated time slot if we don’t pick up the pace.
The incline continues and every muscle in my legs burn. It’s a constant, nagging ache now and a sharp pain with each step higher.
People continue to climb down past us, each passing hiker offering encouraging words as we struggle for strength and air.
“Only 20 more minutes.”
“You guys are almost there.”
There are more than 2,000 steps at Machu Picchu and it feels like we must have stepped on them all twice over by now. We turn another twist and find a mother and son selling water. We drank ours long ago and I think I would have paid almost anything for water at that point. It’s Peru though so the water is cheap, we hydrate and keep climbing.
I listen carefully for voices, for signs we are almost at the top. Around us, the tips of mountains dance side by side. The clouds look so close I feel as though I could reach out and touch them.
The hike is an expected 45 minutes in total, although we had a slow start with Ivy walking. We have been climbing for an hour when we set a goal. Ten minutes. We have 10 more minutes to reach the top. We climb faster. Eight minutes. We push harder. I ignore every part of my screaming body. Seven minutes. I can hear voices above us. Six, five, four, three. I can see a clearing through the trees above us. I can hear buses. Two. We made it.
We find the others we lost long ago at the start of the climb. They sit resting on the wall outside the entry gates but there is still no guide to take us in. Some of the others from our former tour are also missing their guide. We have our tickets and could enter, but we decide a guide would be best to learn about the site.
We join the others and together we find a new guide, agree on a group price and finally go through the gates.
Once inside, I stop for a moment just to take it all in. I am staring at the ruins in front of me, trying to let my mind catch up to what my eyes are taking in. I still do not have the words to describe it.
We head left and climb higher, past llamas and their babies, past hundreds of tourists and to the very spot you see in all the photos of Machu Picchu. It is beyond incredible. It is perfect.
We wonder the ruins for hours, listening to our guide explain the theories about the stones, the suspected history of the city – why he believes it was a hidden university – and the plans and hopes for the future. We wind through on the designated pathways, careful not to obstruct or damage the remains. We walk through ancient Inca structures and discuss what we each thought they may have been.
I am still in disbelief I am standing here among an ancient hidden city in the hills. The thought sends goosebumps across my skin, a new, exciting chill not immune to the layers of my jacket.
Sadly when our time is up, we return to the gates and stamp our passports before joining the bus line to get back to the bottom. I do not want to leave although I never really will. A part of me will always stay here, hidden in the hills among the mountains in this moment, this memory. In this dream that will live longer than I do.